Managing director James Bennett and chief operating officer Jay Goss have faced far more dangerous and difficult situations than most independent financial advisers in their dealings with overseas clients.
Bennett has been threatened with Kalashnikovs, caught in fire fights in Nigeria and threatened with knives in Papua New Guinea, while Goss got stuck on the wrong side of a bridge during heated protests in Cairo four months ago.
With around 80% of Aston Wealth Management’s business coming from challenging territories in Western Africa, this striking strategic focus can be explained by the backgrounds of both men.
They went to the same top Scottish public school Gordonstoun, with its well-known emphasis on outdoor activities, which famously did not agree well with alumnus Prince Charles.
Becoming best friends, they also went on to the same university, Edinburgh, and carved out separate careers before converging to form the Swiss-registered financial advisory firm just over two years ago.
The spirit of adventure
The route to Africa’s financial sector began when Bennett got his first job in the financial press, as he explains: “I was living in Spain at the time and got flown out to Nigeria for a year. Don’t ask me how I ended up there.
That’s where it all started, with me adapting to West Africa at a fairly young age and learning how to operate there.”
Bennett subsequently joined AES International, and cut his teeth as a financial adviser by working for five years on his own in some of the more remote markets.
“I decided that if they were dedicating themselves to the Middle East, I would dedicate myself to Africa and other interesting areas,” he says.
Meanwhile, Goss had joined the Royal Marines where he became a captain in command of 120 men with two tours in Afghanistan, three months in Kabul and nine months in the Helmand Province.
“Within 12 hours of arriving in Kabul, there was a taxi that was blown up 20 metres in front of me as I was driving down the road in an unmarked car. In Helmand I lost two soldiers in pretty fruity situations – in fire fights – that’s the life that it was,” he recalls.
Fast forward to a conversation in 2011 when they say they very quickly came to the conclusion that there was “some business we could do together, and took it from there. It’s been really good fun”.
Laying the foundations
One key decision was to register Aston Wealth Management with a Swiss licence, and head office in Zurich, to deliver financial advice.
Another important, and financially stretching, move involved buying a currency management company, which they have renamed Aston Currency Management. It is run as a separate entity from the wealth management operation from an office in Knightsbridge, London, which also serves as a representative office.
From these twin bases, the markets they operate in include Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Uganda and Egypt, as well as Azerbaijan, Papua New Guinea, Brunei, Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan.
A fly-in approach combines with someone almost always on the ground, with plans for permanent offices in three separate countries, Bennett says.
“We’re both comfortable now in these environments and before any of our guys go there for the first time, we will always go there first, by referral.
“There’s a high barrier to entry, it’s expensive and it can be a bit dicey at times, so it takes a certain kind of adviser, someone a bit tenacious. We will happily pay to get things up and running because if you invest in them, they develop that market.”
Live and direct
The focus on dealing with expatriates who are working with oil and gas majors, such as Chevron and BP, means clients are getting paid out of stable Western cities such as Aberdeen and Houston. “That mitigates a lot of the compliance and risk side because there’s always that perception of a country like Nigeria being corrupt, but it doesn’t really impact on us at all.”
These markets can seem like a double-edged sword because they’re relatively small compared with places such as the Middle East, but it is all about keeping a good reputation.
“One bad case and word gets around – and that’s it, you’re done. We’re not just interested in the lump sums and the regular premiums.”
Bennett explains their target client might not even be able to open a bank account because, for example, they have a Nigerian employment contract. So the advice aims to be “as holistic as possible”, sorting out a number of areas such as their protection needs and offshore bank account to enable currency switches to other accounts.
“They just give us instructions. So they’ll say, ‘$20,000 coming in from whichever contractor, say Shell. Can you please put €4,000 into my French accounts and convert the rest into sterling for my UK account.’
“This gets done on the same day. We send them a receipt. We do live time so they can call up their bank and see what rate they save, and generally we save about 1.5%, which on a salary these guys are on a year, can be $6,000.”
Other IFAs have started using this currency service, and though Bennett says the recent purchase of the currency management business cost them the past two and half years of income, the value it delivers to clients is clearly an important part of their strategy.
“You pick up three or four pieces of business from one client as opposed to just going hunting for that regular premium. We think it is a nicer way to do business, it improves our reputation and gives us more longevity in each market.”
“We start with the basics, making sure their life is squared away and that the necessities are covered. Then, if they need you, when they’re ready, they’ll talk to you about investments. It’s like a duty of care.”
The call of the wild
The business model they set up in Nigeria has been transplanted to other countries where there are extractive industries and the associated plentiful natural resources.
Their experience to date is that Papua New Guinea is the worst country ‘by a country mile’ to do business, on many fronts. “It makes Nigeria look like Paris. It’s exhausting, but we do tend to seek out these markets on purpose because the guys are well paid in the oil and gas industries.
The markets are smaller but once you’re in, they are great for referrals,” Bennett says.
Visiting clients in situ enables them to deliver a service, and they try to be as thorough as possible.
As Goss says: “These guys don’t have access to these services when they’re out on a rig or out in the swamplands – it’s really challenging for them to get anything done. They’re being paid danger money, so therefore they have to do something with it.”
He points out that a scaffolder will be paid about $250,000 or more, compared with $35,000 in a mainstream Western market.
Shock and awe
Spending a fair amount of time in Cairo over the past year, Goss says he has faced a lot of challenges. “In the summer, we were having six, seven hours of power cuts a day and it was 45 degrees plus, which was pretty brutal in the centre of Cairo – and you’ve got all the problems that they’ve been having.”
This worked out fine because Goss says he could avoid the hotspots, but nothing quite tops the short initial trip Bennett did to research Liberia a couple of years ago.
“On day two, I stepped on a nest of fire ants, which it turns out I’m allergic to, so I went into anaphylactic shock on the beach, and going to hospital in Liberia is not that much fun. On the way to the airport at the end of the trip, the taxi driver crashed and rolled the car at two in the morning.”
Just three days later when he was back in the UK he contracted cerebral malaria, the worst form of the disease, which induces coma.
“That was a two-week trip – these places are not easy. But I’d say that is possibly my worst experience.”
These obstacles have not stopped them from building what they clearly regard as a successful footprint in markets that many would steer clear of, with the drive and spirit to continue doing so. As Bennett puts it: “We’re young guys and we’re pretty high energy”.